National Geographic photographers reveal the cameras they use to capture world-renowned pictures. —Dan Westergren, director of photography, National Geographic Travel
Amy Toensing, Canon 5D Mark III
Photograph courtesy Canon
With its EOS 5D camera, Canon introduced a relatively small, affordable full-35mm-size digital camera. It was an instant hit with photographers who make their livings traveling around the world. Up until the EOS 5D, full-frame cameras were large and heavy. Many photographers felt hampered under the significant weight of their huge state-of-the-art cameras. The 5D cameras were classified as "prosumer" cameras, lacking some of the features of Canon's rapidly focusing, higher megapixel, made-for-professionals cameras. But because the full-frame sensor produced such great images, many photographers were happy to lighten their load, even if the camera was a little slower to operate. The second version of this camera included HD video recording on its full-frame sensor. This was a groundbreaking feature, creating a whole new generation of wannabe filmmakers. The video quality is so good that Canon 5D Mark IIs were used to film an entire episode of the TV show House.
Now in its third version, the camera's slowness is gone, and you'll find it hanging around the neck of many National Geographic photographers. Amy Toensing feels that Canon had her in mind with this camera, saying: "It was exciting to have the 5D series come out as a woman. The camera fits very well in my hands, and when you're trying to do intimate work, it's pretty low profile. Even though it's not the fastest camera, the files are gorgeous. What good is having the biggest, fastest, highest megapixel camera if you're not able to gain the trust of your subjects?"
Sensor: 22.3MP 35mm full-frame
Good for: Travel and documentary work
Get it: www.canon.com
Erika Larsen, Wista 4x5 Field Camera
Photograph by Erika Larsen
Erika Larsen's best known works have been produced using an old-fashioned camera that requires her to mount it on a tripod, then hide under a dark cloth to compose and focus on a screen that shows the world upside down and reversed side to side.
"I've used a range of cameras when on assignment for National Geographic, including small- and medium-format digital and twin-lens reflex film cameras," Larsen says. "But for the majority of my work I use a Wista 4x5 Field Camera. I've used it for the better part of 15 years. Although many might believe it's cumbersome to trek around, I've found that it helps me out of numerous situations when the weather is less than pleasant. In cases when temperatures have hit minus 40 [degrees Farenheit] and all my battery-operated gear has tuckered out, my 4x5 is still shooting away. Also, as long as I keep the film dry, I'm able to continue using it in extreme rain without cover or much fuss.
"From the aesthetic and process standpoints, there's a sense of time slowing down when I use this camera. Nothing is or can be immediate. I can't work overly fast, and it can sometimes take weeks for me to see my images. This way of working allows me to experience my story on a very different level from that of shooting digital. I can't escape the moments I'm seeing; I must engage on a more visceral level."
Sensor: 4x5-inch photographic film
Good for: Contemplative, artistic pictures, especially subtle color gradations and ridiculously high resolution
Get it: www.bhphotovideo.com
Thomas Peschak, Nikon D3S
Photograph by Thomas Peschak
For many years Nikon seemingly refused to take part in the megapixel race. While other manufacturers were pushing for higher and higher pixel counts, Nikon kept its cameras reasonable, knowing that a lower number of pixels would result in much better low-light performance. Photographer Thomas Peschak leverages that performance for his work in some of the world's least camera-friendly locations. Here's what he has to say about the Nikons he uses.
"Most of my Nat Geo assignments include a significant portion of underwater work, so my cameras always need sturdy underwater housing. At the moment, my favorite cameras are still my almost four-year-old D3S Nikons (I own three of them). The D3S's very low noise at high ISO settings allows me to keep shooting underwater until well after sunset, and its fast frame rate and large buffer are perfect for capturing unique images of large, fast-moving marine predators such as sharks. My gear suffers more than 200 days of abuse every year, and my underwater housings often receive quite a pounding on small boats in rough seas. My favorite housings are made by Subal in Austria; they're incredibly rugged without having too many moving or electronic parts. I work mainly in very remote locations, where sturdy and simple always outperforms complicated and delicate."
Sensor: 12MP 35mm full-frame
Good for: Low-light images (it’s still the low-light king)
Get it: www.nikon.com
Mike Yamashita, Sony Alpha a99
Photograph by Michael Yamashita
In 2008 Sony announced a full-frame sensor camera that, at 25 megapixels for $1,100, provided by far the biggest camera bang for your buck on the market. The only other camera available with 25 megapixels at that time was the Nikon D3X, which sold for over $7,000. Another major selling point of the Sony was its top-tier lenses, designed by the famous German glass company Zeiss. But the Sony didn't make a big splash in the professional market because most photographers were already committed to their Canon or Nikon cameras.
National Geographic's Mike Yamashita was an early convert and now uses Sony's latest DSLR, the Alpha a99. Though it has roughly the same megapixel count as the company's first full-frame camera, the a99 has adopted an electronic viewfinder, doing away with the typical viewing mirror still used in many professional systems. "I like that you always see the moment," Yamashita says. "The translucent mirror allows continuous viewing even while shooting fast motor-drive sequences." He also likes the articulated back screen, especially when photographing people. By flipping the screen up and looking down at the camera, it's easier to take natural-looking photos. "People don't pay attention because they don't think you're taking a picture."
Sensor: 24MP 35mm full-frame
Good for: Landscapes, because the sensor produces highly detailed and colorful shots
Get it: www.sony.com
Rena Effendi, Rolleiflex TLR Medium-Format Film Camera
Photograph by Rena Effendi
Rena Effendi is a member of the twin-lens reflex club. These cameras are a little confusing to use because they transpose the scene you see left to right, but unlike with the field camera, the view is right side up. Here's Effendi's ode of love to her favorite machine.
"Working with a Rollei pushes me to be a slower photographer, thus making the whole process more meditative. It's the kind of camera with which I cannot run or capture moments in a fast and furious manner. But these limitations are what I love. As a result, I linger on the scene and spend more time observing and understanding my surroundings rather than taking pictures continuously.
"Rolleiflex is a very quiet machine, almost silent, and very often I find myself whispering and tiptoeing with it around people and places. As I look down at the screen to compose my frame, I'm hunched over in a kind of prayer pose and my face is pressed against the magnifying glass. This 'humble' gesture of taking pictures with a Rollei makes me feel less threatening to the people I photograph, less "in your face," less direct, less aggressive. I can disappear into it, like hiding in a magic box.
"It's an extremely fragile and high-maintenance camera. When I'm out photographing and my Rollei breaks, I feel incapacitated, almost crippled without it."
Sensor: 2 1/4 x 2 1/4-inch 120-roll film
Good for: Blending into the background and capturing natural, unscripted moments
Get it: www.bhphotovideo.com
Jim Richardson, Nikon D800E
Photograph by Jim Griggs
When Nikon finally decided to enter the megapixel race, it did so in a big way with the field-leading, 36-megapixel D800. Jim Richardson prefers the D800E variant, which uses a slightly different filter pack on top of the sensor, increasing the resolution to amazing levels. Here's what he has to say about the camera.
"Paul Simon's song enshrined both Kodachrome and his Nikon camera, encapsulating an ethos and a look from a now bygone era. Today I put nostalgia aside and pick cameras for the image quality they'll produce. I mostly stick with my Nikon D800E for one simple reason: gorgeous image quality. It's not just the much ballyhooed 36 megapixels. I care less about that than about the rich photographic tonality it gives my images. Last year National Geographic sent me around the world to photograph portraits of farmers. After much testing (which included über-expensive medium-format systems), I decided that I was happiest with the images I could produce with the D800E, partly because it allowed me to shoot the lens wide open in full sunlight at 1/8000 of a second. The resulting files had beautiful bokeh effects and were incredibly richly detailed even though I'd been slogging around a mucky rice field in Bangladesh and huffing up mountainsides in the Andes. I wanted the images to honor the beauty of the farmers I was photographing, and the D800E's quick response, combined with lush imaging, did the trick.
"I own a whole cadre of Nikons and I'll sometimes pick other cameras, depending on the task. I've also used other systems (happily) over the years, going back to the film era. Someone asked me the other day if I longed for the Kodachrome era. I told them that, frankly, it's only when I hear the Paul Simon song. With the kind of image quality I get out of cameras like the D800E, there's no comparison."
Sensor: 36MP 35mm full-frame
Good for: Landscapes and portraits; photojournalism, especially using flash
Get it: www.nikon.com
Steve Winter, Canon Rebel T5i
Photograph by Steve Winter
Canon's Rebel was the first truly affordable digital SLR. The original six-megapixel camera has been continuously improved over the years and is still one of the best cameras to be had for the money. It's surprising to hear that National Geographic's Steve Winter was named BBC's Wildlife Photographer of the Year for photos shot with Canon's ultimate beginner camera. Winter has shot many wildlife stories for National Geographic magazine, but his real specialty is photographing wild cats—including snow leopards, tigers, and cougars—in their natural environments. To get closer to the cats than anyone could ever hope to, he uses camera traps that consist of a specially modified box containing a camera. After careful research, he places these waterproof camera and flash systems in the most likely place to catch his subjects. An infrared beam is set where he wants the cat to appear in the photograph. When everything works out, the cat breaks this beam and produces the ultimate selfie. Winter will have numerous camera traps set in the field for months at a time, so it's important that the cameras be inexpensive while giving up nothing in image quality.
Winter has used Canon Rebels since they were first introduced many years ago. He says, "These cameras have worked flawlessly throughout the most brutal conditions, from minus 50 [degrees Fahrenheit] in the Himalaya to 120 degrees in India. How they continue to function in these extreme conditions never ceases to amaze me! Though they're inexpensive, the traps on average make up 10 to 15 percent of each story [I shoot] for National Geographic. For my snow leopard story, 100 percent of the cat images were from the traps."
Sensor: 18MP APS-C
Good for: Affordable general-purpose photography; a good introduction into the Canon family of cameras
Get it: www.canon.com
Anastasia Taylor-Lind, Bronica SqAi
Photograph by Anastasia Taylor-Lind
Anastasia Taylor-Lind prefers the slower process of shooting film, usually using a medium format Bronica single lens reflex camera. For her, medium format film produces higher quality than 35mm digital. Digital medium format cameras are available at bank-breaking cost, so why not use a camera that can be had for a few hundred dollars instead of tens of thousands? Here's a rundown of a few more reasons she shoots with this particular camera.
"I see the world square, not rectangular, and so love the shape of the frame. I also prefer shooting through a waist-level viewfinder, so that I don't cover my face with my camera when I make pictures. This allows me to continue interacting with my subjects and work more subtly," Taylor-Lind says. "Having to use a handheld light meter—there is no internal light meter—allows me to physically touch each person I photograph, usually on the cheek. I believe this simple gesture allows me to build a personal connection more quickly. The process of manually reading the light and focusing slows the whole process down. It is old-fashioned and takes time. That suits me, and that influences the types of pictures that I can make; 35mm digital photography is too quick."
With this manual process, Taylor-Lind does lose a major advantage that digital photography offers: the ability to instantly share photographs with an online audience. Her solution? She photographs images displayed on the camera's huge viewing screen with her iPhone. Her assistant, Tom Jamieson, eventually devised an arm to rigidly mount her phone to the camera. This also allows Taylor-Lind to capture short videos. A series of videos she made during the 2014 Ukraine protests garnered awareness for her series of protestor portraits. They also built an audience that followed her photographic process from the first day of shooting in Maidan square. She recently published a book of those portraits and the videos have been made into a multimedia installation shown in galleries alongside the prints.
Sensor: 6 X 6 cm 120 roll film
Good for: Portraits, landscapes, getting that film look
Get it: www.keh.com
Carsten Peter, Nikon D4
Photograph courtesy Nikon
Carsten Peter is the National Geographic photographer who by choice takes his pictures in the worst places in the world. I think it's because he knows that some of these places will provide pictures like no other. For his ridiculously difficult assignments, he needs a tough camera. When I asked him why he uses a Nikon D4, he told me the following story about the time his driver ran over the camera.
"My driver did it by complete error. He knew it [was there] but must have had a moment of blackout. Anyway, he rolled his minibus over the camera, a D4 with a mounted 24-70mm. The lens was completely destroyed and sheared off, but the camera looked reasonably good. After removing the back lens with the mount from the camera, I could still mount other lenses, and the camera seemed to work flawlessly. I couldn't believe it. I could have continued to photograph with it but was afraid of hidden damages. I couldn't imagine that a complete sheared-off lens would cause so little damage to a D4. It behaved like a tank. But I didn't shoot any more with it and continued my assignment with my backup cameras. Back home I turned it in for service, and despite that it didn't look like too much damage, it was a costly repair to meet the standards of a Nikon D4 again. Exchange of the front body; exchange of iris control; exchange of the Iplate FPC; exchange of the TFT monitor; autofocus and exposure adjustments; and cleaning and testing: $2,250."
Sensor: 16MP 35mm full-frame
Good for: Dragging up mountains or into caves—it's tough as nails
Get it: www.nikon.com
Steve Winter and Tim Laman,
Canon EOS-1D X and 1D C
Photograph courtesy Canon
Canon's EOS-1D X is the descendent of Canon's original full-35mm-frame digital camera. But now it's grown into a super-speedy monster, with all the best attributes of the EOS-1D series in a single camera. It used to be a given that the pro photographer could have a fast camera or a full-frame camera but not both at the same time. Now that digital camera technology is mature, Canon gives photographers everything they could want. This 18-megapixel camera is incredibly weatherproof and shoots up to 12 frames per second. Tim Laman uses the C variant of the camera, which costs a fair bit more but gives him the ability to shoot 4K video as well. Steve Winter particularly likes the camera's low-light performance.
"It does everything I want it to. Whether I'm trying to capture an animal sleeping or running, it's all at my fingertips. And you can shoot in very, very low light," Winter says. "On my last trip to Africa in August 2014 my quality shooting time with the leopards was extended into the deep night, especially during full-moon nights and clear nights with stars. I put the camera on 6400 ISO and shot with confidence." He did recognize a problem with the camera's ability to take pictures in any condition, telling me, "I have to always remember that sometimes I need to get some sleep!"
Sensor: 18MP 35mm full-frame
Good for: Sports and wildlife: A high frame rate and quick autofocus help catch the fleeting moment.
Get it: www.canon.com
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